An Endless Loop: Living with Depression and Anxiety

How do you describe depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation to someone who has never lived with either? Our author walks us through a thought experiment based off of her personal experiences. She asks that we cast aside our judgement and tune in to the thoughts and feelings as empathy is the most powerful tool to help someone living with mental illness.

An illustration of a woman looking into the depths of her depressive and suicidal thoughts
Sofia Santos

Groundhog Day is a fun, thought-provoking movie from 1993 starring Bill Murray. If you’re unfamiliar, here's the cliff-notes version: Phil Connors, an arrogant TV weatherman, is sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to cover the annual Groundhog Day event. He begrudgingly covers the critter observing his shadow and wants to leave early, but a blizzard keeps him and his crew stranded in Punxsutawney. A time loop begins and he relives Groundhog Day over and over again, in different scenarios, each day waking up in the same bed to the same song on the radio. This movie will become the metaphor for our thought experiment, replicating a never-ending cycle that is all too familiar to many.

To begin, take a deep breath and find yourself in a calm, centered place. Now, think back on the worst day you’ve ever had. No, not that one. Think again. You've probably shoved it to the back of your subconscious. Yes, that one. When you’ve recovered the memory, let yourself feel the emotions you had on that day. Really feel them. Let them envelope you as if you were having that bad day in this moment.

Now, imagine that you live with those same feelings every day. Each morning, you wake up completely aware of the negative emotions affecting your day. Not too bad perhaps, but bad enough, right?

Well, let's add to that bad day. What would you consider to be your biggest mistake or failure? What did that feel like? Were you overwhelmed with anxiety? Did you feel stuck and helpless? Imagine that you can't forget about that mistake and the possible shame that accompanies it. You think about it over and over again.

Is it starting to feel a little heavy? Unfortunately, we’re not done yet.

Conjure up that seemingly innocent feeling of loneliness, and add that to your biggest mistake and worst day ever. Have you started to feel a weight on your shoulders or a sunken feeling in the pit of your stomach? Take another deep breath ‘cause we’re not done yet.

This next step might be more challenging, but imagine that every thought you have about yourself, about every situation you’re in, is tainted gray. Rather than finding a silver lining, you only see a black veil of negativity. You come to recognize your negative demeanor and feel as though you should hide these thoughts from others. Is it starting to feel a little dark like a really cloudy day? A day where you want to stay just stay home alone and hide under the covers? Groundhog Day. Whatever you are feeling right now, you wake up feeling that way, every day, no matter what. Everyday is a dreary, lonely, cold, cloudy day. Your body might feel unwieldy; your shoulders hunch forward; your head hangs heavy.

Only two more steps. Keep going.

Have you ever argued with a three-year-old? These little humans are the worst people to argue with because they possess little to no logic. It takes a lot of self-control and brain power to have the same argument over and over again: “Why can't I have dessert?” they ask for the bajillionth time. You know they know the answer: “You didn't eat all your dinner,” but it's useless, exhausting, and you can't bring yourself to understand why they keep asking. Now, imagine that the three-year-old represents the negative thoughts you constantly have, all day, every day. You logically understand that the typo in the email you just sent to your boss isn't that big of a deal, but the three-year-old in you is embarrassed and worried about getting fired or worried that your boss will think less of you and tell your co-workers and, and...

Still not exaggerating.

Lastly, take the night where you had the worst sleep ever. Remember the drowsy, disconnected feeling you had the following day? You guessed it – imagine that exhaustion combined with everything else you are already facing (anxiety, despair, loneliness, physical heaviness). Most primary caretakers of young children will understand this tired-beyond-belief feeling. What happens when you are tired - nay, exhausted? Do you have motivation? Self-control? Logic and reasoning? Hope? Loving feelings? Problem-solving skills? Friendly feelings? Probably not. At least not for a whole day.

Now, how do you feel? Really, how do you feel in your body? What are your thoughts? How is your breathing? Sit with that for a minute.

Take in a deep breath and sigh it out. Do that again, letting go of the sadness. Close your eyes, continue to breath, and imagine light or warmth pouring onto the crown of your head. Imagine that light and warmth spreading down your neck into your heart and let your heart spread that light and warmth throughout your body. Stay with this until you feel normal or good again.

Let's talk about why this exercise sparked these feelings. While depression may manifest with common physical symptoms - exhaustion, headaches, digestive issues - it feels isolatedly personal because it attacks the core of being human. Among other emotions, a person with depression might feel undervalued, unimportant, and unworthy. They often feel as though they have a personality flaw and battle low or non-existent self-esteem. All of these harmful thoughts can lead to the loss of hope and love, resulting solely in numbness and pain.

How do I know all this? I’m not a clinical psychologist nor do I have a degree in psychology. I have, however, experienced living with depression for more than a decade, specifically with major depressive disorder (MDD). This thought experiment is an example of the challenges I face every day when I'm at the lowest point of depression, which unfortunately, usually triggers extreme bouts of anxiety.

Despite what others might think, depression isn’t so easily cured. Those of us living with a chemical imbalance in our brains, can't just snap out of it or exercise our way out of it. While medication can help, it takes time to find the right drug, dose, and/or combination of various prescriptions and supplements. Often, dying, leaving this world, disappearing, seems like the only way to escape the pain. Some turn to substances, some attempt to die and survive, and others still merely exist in a constant state of darkness and negativity.

So let's get real – have I thought of or attempted suicide? That's what this is all about, right?

Yes. Yes, I have sincerely thought of ways to end my life. Yes, death felt like the only escape from the pain and thoughts and turmoil. Yes, death felt like freedom. Yes, I still think about it daily. No, I haven't actually attempted it.

I'm one of the lucky ones.

I’m sure you’re now wondering, “So why haven't you? What stops you?” There are a two main reasons:

  • Unconditional love. I'm lucky enough to have a husband who I love and who loves me, unconditionally. I've managed to stay connected enough to realize that I matter to him.
  • Perfectionism. I fear failure like others fear spiders. My perfectionism, which is a known contributor to depression, forces me to consider whether I could also “fail” at suicide. If an attempt is not guaranteed to actually kill me, I don't want to live with the consequences of that “failure.”

So now you might be stunned, and asking, “But how can you think that way, Natalie!!??” As my therapist and countless others say, “just hang in there.” The alternative to “hanging in there” is ending my life. I have these two options, and choose the former.

But what if suicide seemed like the only option?

What if you couldn’t come up with any reasons why you should live? What if suicide seemed like the solution, the remedy, the antidote? What if for some people with mental health issues that are so debilitating — so life-altering — that suicide or death seems like a plausible treatment option?

I'm not arguing that it is. I've gone to an extreme for the sake of this conversation. For a person with no family, no job, no loved ones, no insurance, no money, no hope, no anything – suicide appears to be the only option. They cannot come up with a reason to continue living. They feel like they have and are nothing.

I’m assuming that we’re all in agreement that death by suicide is not the only option, but what are you going to do to show others that they have a life worth living — that they have a life filled with options and potential? Are you going to ignore that person who might tend toward the negative? Are you going to shun the person who pushes you away? Are you going to stop inviting that friend out who always says no? Or are you going to take a second and think about why they might be so negative? Why are they pushing you away? What is making them want to stay home, alone, all the time? Are you going to stop thinking of a mental health condition as a personality flaw and move toward recognizing it as a medical condition? Are you going to read through this exercise with a friend or loved one and then ask, “How can I help?” I hope so.

As we flash back to the beginning of this “thought experiment,” I think it’s worth revisiting Groundhog Day and what the film (and this process) can teach us. Ultimately, it’s the love story between Phil and fellow TV personality, Rita, that carries the movie along — and what ultimately pulls him out of his time loop. That’s what’s important; there is a way to break the loop, and it involves love. It requires us to be empathetic, compassionate, and supportive - to show love - to help others break and find their way out of their endless loop.

If you or someone you know needs help, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. All call centers are open 24/7 and calls are confidential. Visit https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ for more information.